Aesthetically I rather love Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs of plants but they’re images I don’t really think about often. Joan Fontcuberta’s Flora series brought them to mind though and has send me back to take a fresh look. The images, made in the early twentieth century are simple close-ups of plant details. There are gorgeous curves, beautiful textures and, above all, weird forms that, while clearly plants, don’t seem quite real.
Joan Fontcuberta, Braohypoda frustrata from Herbarium, 1984
Still firmly back with the best of the shows I saw but failed to write about last year, I find myself wondering how it can possibly be true that I have been writing this blog on and off for three years and I have yet to write about the work of Joan Fontcuberta despite having loved his work for many years. I guess in part it comes down to there not having been a major exhibition of his work here until Stranger than Fiction at the Science Museum, which is now on show at the National Media Museum in Bradford (so even though it’s taken me an age to write about it you haven’t actually missed it yet).
For me there’s a lot to like about Fontcuberta’s work. Firstly, there’s a sense of the absurd running through his practice that I enjoy. In some works the earnestness of the conceit is such that it can take time to peel back the layers and work out what’s fact and what’s fiction; other series are altogether more gentle and, of course, the work is often laugh out loud funny.
Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City – Mobile Phones, 2012
Every stood in the supermarket in a state of bafflement wondering which of the 2378297 (or more) different types of shampoo to buy? I know I have. Often. We are always being told that choice is good, but too much choice can be bewildering. Out shopping, especially in the supermarket, unless I fancy a change for some reason, I’m generally pretty focussed; there are definitely things I buy again and again. There’s often a lot to be said for sticking with what you know, of course, but as consumers we all need to make choices and often the sheer range of stuff on offer is overwhelming.* And, of course, when it comes to consumer goods, to a considerable extent we are what we buy. I’m thinking about getting a new phone so, with Liu Bolin firmly in my mind, this feels like a good time to distract myself from decisions by looking at Liu’s pictures.
Other than knowing that they’re very rare and eat bamboo, I know very little about pandas. But the continued survival of the panda triplets born in China in late July gives me an excuse for a long overdue post about the work of Liu Bolin, the art world’s invisible man. Liu somehow manages to paint himself into the landscape allowing himself to disappear into the city. The resulting photographs are intriguing not least for the tension between the challenge of finding the artist – not always easy – and thinking about the significance of the scene and why Liu has chosen to hide himself within it.
Richard Long, A Line Made By Walking, England 1967
I can’t quite decide whether Richard Long’s 1967 work A Line Made by Walking is an example of taking a line for a walk or the exact opposite. Long has effectively made a drawing, of sorts, by walking and certainly – as with Ceal Floyer’s Taking a Line for a Walk – the line is a result of an actual walk but here it’s the act of walking that has brought the line into being, albeit on a temporary basis, rather than a tool used by the artist; the drawing too herel, rather than being a pencil – or a line painting machine or whatever – is the artist himself.
Long’s work, of course, is probably better described as something other than a drawing. Effectively it’s an intervention artwork which has left a temporary trace; the landscape would probably have reasserted itself and obliterated the line before anyone other than Long ever saw it. In this work, as in many interventions, it is the documentation – the photograph – that becomes the exhibited work.
Alex Van Gelders Meat Portraits brought a couple of other bodies of work to mind for me so, ever in pursuit of an overly obvious link, it seems like a good chance to think about Helen Chadwick’s beautiful but disgusting Meat Abstracts. The extraordinary quality of these pictures really doesn’t come across in reproduction but even so the lushness of the pictures is apparent.
The pictures are very deliberately put together; with props and fabrics lending an air of sumptuous theatricality. In each, a careful arrangement of meat has been laid out; each is lit in part from the single light build positioned within the frame.
I’ll admit to approaching the exhibition of Alex Van Gelder’s Meat Portraits at Hauser and Wirth with a feeling of trepidation. Yes, from what I’d seen the images looked rather beautiful, but there’s no getting round the fact that they’re photographs of bits of dead animal and I’m a vegetarian so meat isn’t something I’m keen on looking at really.
Individually, many of the images are undeniably beautiful to the extent it’s sometimes hard to remember that the subject matter is so gruesome. The colours and patterns are seductive and there’s a pleasing symmetry to some of the pictures that just doesn’t say abattoir to me. At times it’s all too clear though.
A Brief History of John Baldessari, 2012 – title screen
In a way it’s just a short leap from Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell to the three things John Baldessari believes every young artist should know, though rather than painting these he chose to impart them to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of the short – very short, we’re talking six minutes here – documentary A short History of John Baldessari. It turns out it’s possible to find out quite a lot about Baldessari in six minutes, though I suspect knowing a certain amount about the man and his work before hand does help.
As explorations of the similarity between dog and owner go, Arnatt’s Walking the Dogs is all well and good but the definitive answer is offered, not even a little bit seriously, by some of William Wegman’s pictures. Of all Wegman’s dog pictures – and there are many and they involve some serious posing by the dogs who are both photogenic and apparently very amenable to a bit of dressing up and acting – I think it’s the dog walker ones that make me laugh the most; this is a simple idea, faultlessly realised.
The beauty of Wegman’s work is that it feels like a collaborative practice with his dogs – first Man Ray, then Fay Ray and her off-spring – as partners in picture-making.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s The Hamptons has made me start to think about other photographs of dogs and about how they often make me smile. Even the most cursory glance about the place reveals the internet to be all about kittens, but when it comes to actual photographs in actual galleries then I think dogs win out. So in part to get me out of the rut of writing about art I saw last year, here’s some art I saw even longer ago. Admittedly as steps forward go, this may not be a very impressive one but in mitigation, there are some really great art dogs out there and what better way to cheer up this rather rainy January than by looking at pictures one can’t help but find cheering? And what better way to start than with Elliott Erwitt?